What I Wish I Had Known About Becoming Healthy
“I just want to get healthy.”
Say hello to a vague but highly desired goal.
We know what we need to do: Eat whole, earth-grown foods and spend time moving our bodies. We know what we need to not do: Overconsume sugar-laden lattes and spend time after work binge-watching Netflix shows that cut into our precious sleep. Why is it then with the knowledge of what we need to do, we still struggle to do it?
Knowledge alone isn’t enough. It’s one thing to “know” how Bernoulli’s principle explains why and how planes can fly. Both my husband and father are engineers and share an appreciation of these miraculous machines. Sitting at an airport with them, they’ll stare out the window and discuss the different models of planes and throw around terms that define potential lift and thrust. Most of what they say floats by me as if they were speaking Russian — I hear it, I appreciate it, I think it all sounds pretty badass, but I have no clue what the heck they’re saying. They love the mechanics of an engine and can quickly rattle off the unique specs of different aircraft. I trust in their opinion of airplanes. All this aside..
I do not want either one of them to fly me from point a to point b.
While I trust they “know” how planes fly, I do not trust that they (yet) understand how to fly one. Knowing implies that we’ve learned something. Understanding requires that we actively do something.
The same goes for getting healthy. We know what to do. We just don’t always understand how to do it.
And this is what I wish I would have known: The true testament of becoming a healthier person had nothing to do with a meal plan or an exercise routine. It had everything to do with learning how to question my choices and constantly challenge my existing beliefs.
Self-criticism is great for developing humility — but not so great for handling failure
Let’s set the scene: A social gathering of your close friends on a summer’s day. A group of friends around a barbeque, a cooler full of beer, multiple ceramic dishes full of side dishes, and at the end of the table, plates of baked goods and bottles of wine. “One plate,” you tell yourself.
So, you dish one plate.
And then, you notice others going back for seconds. To which you bargain, “A few bites won’t hurt.” The next thing you know, the whole crew is discussing how stuffed they feel and you’re silently making plans to start that diet tomorrow. You go to sleep with a feeling of guilt that “it happened again” and you swear up and down tomorrow you’ll consume only the healthiest of choices. It’s a cycle. And it’s driven by subconscious cycles that run amuck in the background of our minds.
Most of us grew up believing if we wanted to succeed, we needed to chase high standards and set even higher expectations of ourselves. When we made mistakes, we forced ourselves to double down the next day. Whether it’s restricting food or exercising to no avail, we must do something to right the wrong.
But what happens at the end of the day when we’re exhausted and tired? Our brain screams at us to “treat yo self” because for heaven’s sake.. you deserve it.
And thus, the cycle continues.
If we’re not consciously aware of the thoughts we think, self-criticism can quickly turn into self-sabotage.
What proved to be much more effective was learning to address “mistakes” with compassion and curiosity.
Self-compassion proved much more effective than criticism
As you evaluate your goals, take a minute to ponder the habits that prevent you from your own success. More importantly, pay attention to the feelings surrounding those habits.
Are you frustrated?
Are you perplexed?
Are you impatient?
Or, are you encouraged?
Are you understanding?
Are you flexible?
Being compassionate allows for curiosity, change, and growth while still holding us accountable to be reflective and humble. Compassion has even more power than beratement because it leaves space for love.
Please don’t roll your eyes (yet) and write this off as a “woo woo” empowering reflection from someone who had it easier or has something you don’t. Being compassionate with yourself is in fact…
It’s a mind fuck for your brain to go back on all it’s ever known. Willpower, punishment, expectations were the tools your mind used to get things done. And now, you’re asking it to be caring, inquisitive and forgiving. You have to trust that compassion is more effective than criticism.
Compassion for yourself starts from within and radiates out
There’s a misconception out there than in order for us to be happy, things need to change. Our boss should not micromanage. Our spouse should be more attentive. We shouldn’t have to nag our kids. The Starbucks barista should have been friendlier.
The list of “shoulds” is endless.. Especially when they’re the “shoulds” that we impose on ourselves: I should not eat this cookie. I should workout more. I should volunteer more time. I should clean out the garage.
Honestly.. It. Never. Ends.
That’s why we need to change our script from the inside to affect how we see the outside world. Once we do that, we really don’t need anything else to change. Our boss can micromanage all they want. Your spouse could ignore the dirty dishes for another two days and the barista could greet you with an “eff you!” None of it would matter because you’d no longer be reacting to the situation. You’d be observing it.
In same way, we can simply observe our own personal “shoulds” to see what happens: I could maybe not eat this cookie. I could go for a walk this afternoon. I could see if my child’s school has any needs. I could clean one shelf in the garage.
It’s a subtle shift. But it’s a shift, nonetheless.
Understanding self-compassion means challenging your views
It’s one thing to know self-compassion is effective. It’s an entirely different beast to practice self-compassion daily. To understand how to practice self-compassion, we need two things:
The willingness to change our viewpoint over and over again.
The courage to ask “why?”
You cannot achieve the quest for health with a meal plan and workout routine alone. You have to heal the relationship with your inner dialogue. You might even need to start by simply acknowledging your self-talk is kind of crappy. Hell… you may even need a little assistance discovering what your self-talk sounds like!
As I’ve progressed through my own journey, I’ve changed my stance on many things. So much so, you could call me a hypocrite. I don’t see my changes in opinion as hypocrisy or a bandwagon. I see them as shifts in thinking and an openness to try new things.
Take alcohol for example. For many years, I was convinced I needed alcohol to have a good time. While I never developed any reliance on alcohol, it was present in my life and played a role in my success (or lack thereof) in my goals.
My first shift in reducing alcohol occurred when I realized it affected my running. I’ve been a runner all my life and actively train for races year-round. One Saturday afternoon, my training plan called for a 10-mile run. My husband and I had been out the night before, enjoying many drinks with friends. As I started lacing my shoes, I had an uneasy feeling I didn’t have it in me to finish this run. I asked my husband to keep his phone near him, just in case. Sure enough, I bonked. As I waited for him to find me on my route, I had plenty of time to ponder “why?”
I couldn’t make sense of why I compromised my goals for another night at a bar I’d already been to. I couldn’t rationalize how drinking to the point of drunk did me any good. From that day forward, I actively chose when and how much I would drink.
I asked “why” and changed my stance.
The second major shift occurred when I wanted to lose weight for my wedding. I’d already achieved a weight I was comfortable in but want to be toned and slim for the big day. In order to hit my goal, I’d have to cut alcohol out entirely.
Holy hell — I knew I was someone who had baggage. I just never thought I’d be someone who opened up said baggage.
I wasn’t sure if I was capable of such a strict requirement. I feared being called out for not drinking. I didn’t think I’d have the courage to chime into conversations unless I had a boost from a glass of wine. I didn’t want others to think I was stuck up for not drinking. Turns out, my “why” for drinking alcohol was due to some social anxiety I’d not acknowledged.
Sorting it all out was nasty. But man… I am so glad I did it. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
My original viewpoint that I needed alcohol to have fun no longer had a place in my life. I went from someone who had a drink at least 2–3 nights a week to someone who drinks once a month. More importantly, I changed from someone who followed the crowd to someone who made her own decisions.
This is a singular, extremely watered down example.
The point isn’t even in the example itself: It’s all about the process of changing my inner thoughts/beliefs. I fully intend, expect and anticipate to have this same experience across a myriad of habits and beliefs.
Your mind is an essential part of your health
Regardless of how many veggies you eat per day or how many steps you track per week, you need to love and nurture your mind. If you want to see permanent changes in your habits, you’ll need a healthy dose of self-reliance.
The only way to get there is through compassion for yourself.
The next time you’re feeling low, I beg of you: Please do not purchase another meal plan. Please don’t restrict your food or run an extra mile.
Slow down. Breathe deep. Remind yourself, this is the chance to move from knowing and into understanding.
Stay curious, my friends.
Originally published at https://annajavellana.com on April 19, 2020.